On wing and water

Bird foot prints in the mud flats on Burrima
Australian white ibis roosting on the deeper channels
Australian white ibis, Burrima (9 July 2020)

The Macquarie Marshes are recognised internationally as a birding ‘hotspot’, despite there not being many accessible places to get into the heart of the wetlands*. Ninety per cent of the Marshes are privately owned, and short of public road access points and travelling stock routes (see p45 Bird Watching Trail Guide), there aren’t too many places that allow you to see the 239 bird species that make the Macquarie Marshes home, or at the very least, use it as a stop-over spot. The terrain itself, particularly during wet cycles, makes it difficult.

How we expect people to value these landscapes when access is so restricted? If only the scientists and land managers are allowed to experience them, it makes the understanding and appreciation of them very abstract concepts for the rest of us.

Having recently made my fourth trip to the Marshes since February, when the area was still showing the effects of prolonged drought, I’ve started to see life return with the water. It’s certainly not been an instant recovery, but slowly and surely, with more water promised over winter and into spring, life is returning as the vegetation regenerates and starts to support the water and woodland birds.

A kite flies over the reed-lined channels in the River Red Gum forest
A kite flies over the reed-lined channels in the River Red Gum forest

Spending time on this last visit with a passionate birder and Marshes advocate, I saw more birds than previously, with great anticipation now for what might be revealed in further excursions in late winter and spring.

It was interesting to hear how some of the birds we spotted are having their moment in the sun, as the water re-enters the system, in particularly the mud or shallow water waders like the dotterals and stilts. Even some of the aquatic vegetation now evident in shallower channels will start to disappear as the reeds spread.

In just a few hours during the middle of the day, across two sites (one in the North Marsh, the other between the North and South Marsh on Gibson Way), we saw and heard: black-fronted dotterels, black-winged stilts, a whistling kite, Australian white ibis, tree martins, a grey fantail, willie wagtails, a sacred kingfisher, cockatoos, lapwings, blue and white-winged fairy wrens, finches, what sounded like a butcher bird, and the signature wetland song of the reed warblers. Then further south, numerous black swans and a couple of intermediate egrets (alongside grazing cattle), a harrier, and moorhens. These are just the species I had time to make a mental note of on the day. I was there to listen and learn on this occasion, not to record. I only had my phone to capture photos.

For future overnight trips, I’ll be on the look-out for the sounds of the barking owl and southern boobook, and maybe in the spring, the threatened Australasian bittern (the holy grail), all with distinctive calls. I’ve now earmarked a few spots where there’s evidence of bird roosting activity (not those specific species) and I’ll do some durational video and sound recordings with the field camera and acoustic recorder in these locations on my return. Fingers crossed.

Looking towards the southern part of the Marshes
Looking towards the southern part of the Marshes from Gibson Way

I’ve been largely working from the Macquarie Marshes Environmental Trust owned property, “Burrima”, over the past six months due to the incredible accessibility there, particularly for overnight use of my tech – a tricky thing given the nature of the environment and how much tech hates being wet. However, there are a few other sites along the system that I’m planning to explore despite issues of accessibility, that skirt around the Ramsar areas of the Marsh. It does make me wonder how we expect people to value these landscapes when access is so restricted**? If only the scientists and land managers are allowed to experience them, it makes the understanding and appreciation of them very abstract concepts for the rest of us. And yes, I understand the fragile nature of the area in terms of its habitat for nesting waterbirds, and the impact access may have on the operations of private property.

Water and reeds on private property
Water and reeds on private property

The project behind these excursions, Pulse of the Wetland, aims to not only document the recovery of the Marshes from prolonged drought and fire but present the wetlands in a way not easily or normally experienced. Using a range of cameras and microphones mostly between dusk and dawn, the resulting digital works, alongside stories of the Marshes from those who know and love the area, will offer a snapshot in time that aims to explore just what the Marshes’ communities and advocates hope for the future of this dynamic and complex ecosystem. The plan is to present the works back to the community as well as exhibiting internationally.

* See National Parks and Wildlife brochure on the Macquarie Marshes: The Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve is surrounded by private land and has no public access...Recognised for its important wetlands, access to this nature reserve is limited to management and research staff. NPWS manage the Nature Reserves.

**NPWS have been informed of the Pulse of the Wetland project and have to date declined to respond to requests for information or access.

Bird foot prints in the mud flats on Burrima
Bird foot prints in the mud flats on Burrima

Published by Goldsmith's Studio

Digital media artist, creative content producer & instigator of ART e-Parties.

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